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Immigrant Life in All Its Jagged Rhythms…Franky G. Acts His Way Out Of A Corner With `Manito'

Immigrant Life in All Its Jagged Rhythms


June 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

Manito," Eric Eason's debut feature, was made with very little money, a fair amount of skill and a great deal of heart. Most of the action unfolds in a single day in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, and Mr. Eason, using a hand-held camera and a largely new or nonprofessional cast, brilliantly captures the pulse of daily life in working-class, immigrant New York: the hectic rhythms of labor, leisure and family life, the stresses and pleasures, the anxieties and hopes. He has a quick-moving, incisive eye that captures little details of gesture and décor – the way a young boy imitates his father's impatient morning alarm-clock slap, the magic by which a rented catering hall is transformed into a sacred place – and also an ear finely tuned to the nuances of talk.

The characters are mostly Dominican, with a few whose roots are in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Their cultural, culinary and sexual differences are a source of perpetual argument and analysis, and they speak a fast, bracing combination of English and Spanish. The subtitles capture the sense well enough; the music requires no translation.

And for most of its brief, packed running time, "Manito," which opens today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans, has the lilt and momentum – the swing – of a musical performance. (It also includes one, by a tight, fiery merengue combo called Fulanito.) Though a dramatic (even melodramatic) narrative eventually takes shape, what you remember is the succession of moods and observations through which it emerges. Manny Moreno, or Manito (Leo Minaya), is the pride of his battered family – his dapper, gentle grandfather (Hector González), his sister-in-law (Julissa López), and above all his older brother, Junior (Franky G.), who is trying to make an honest living as a painting contractor after serving a prison sentence.

The reason for his time in prison is revealed later, as is the source of Junior's hatred of his and Manny's father (Manuel Cabral), who lurks around the edges of his estranged family and tries to elbow his way into their celebration of Manny's high school graduation. But the lurking possibility of family tragedy is deferred – so much so that its arrival seems underprepared and a little forced – until we have understood the fragile normalcy that Manny and Junior cling to. Manny is a sensitive, studious young man, but also a bit indistinct, as if Mr. Minaya and the restless camera were dodging each other. (Manny's would-be girlfriend, Marisol, is much more vivid, partly because nobody would dare to turn away from the fearless, provoking gaze of Jessica Morales, in real life a medical assistant but a born actress.)

The volcanic center of the movie is Junior, and Franky G., who seems to be turning up everywhere lately (in "Confidence" and "The Italian Job," as well as here) has undeniable star power. His acting may be rough and unmodulated at times, but he shows the complexity of Junior's temperament with furious economy. Junior's flaws are entangled with his virtues: he is both a family man and a compulsive philanderer, at once dishonest and dependable. His angry masculine bravado seems edged with panic, just as his brutal impatience is a reflection of his tenderness.

His performance anchors the film in an unpretentious realism that has something in common with Peter Sollett's "Raising Victor Vargas," which was set in a Dominican neighborhood on the other end of Manhattan. Mr. Eason's sense of the streets is harsher; his summer day is more severely shadowed by poverty, crime and desperation. At the end, as the latent tensions within the family and the neighborhood burst into full operatic color, "Manito" loses some of its charm and insight. It becomes, more conventionally, a movie about the Streets, rather than about the particular blocks and boulevards it observes with such rare sensitivity and insight.


Written and directed by Eric Eason; director of photography, Didier Gertsch; edited by Kyle Henry; music by Saundi Wilson; production designer, Christine Darch; produced by Jesse Scolaro and Allen Bain; released by Film Movement. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 76 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Franky G. (Junior Moreno), Leo Minaya (Manny Moreno), Manuel Cabral (Oscar Moreno), Julissa López (Miriam), Jessica Morales (Marisol), Hector González (Abuelo), Panchito Gómez (Rodchenko) and the band Fulanito.

Franky G. Acts His Way Out Of A Corner With 'Manito'

By Glenn Lovell

June 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 San Jose Mercury News. All rights reserved.

Ex-pugilist and bodybuilder Franky G., who likes to refer to himself as a ``New Rican,'' is suddenly everywhere. He plays the mechanic who soups up the Mini Coopers in ``The Italian Job.'' He's Dustin Hoffman's bodyguard in ``Confidence.'' And he's an L.A. detective in Val Kilmer's upcoming ``Wonderland,'' about coke, murder and porno.

Not bad for a guy from Brooklyn who, just two years ago, was working as a strip-club bouncer and before that as a light-heavyweight boxer and bit player in such movies as Robert De Niro's ``Night and the City.''

At least one of Franky G.'s directors refers to his ascendancy as ``a Cinderella story. . . Everybody wants a piece of the guy.''

``I'm giving it 110 percent and taking it to the next level,'' says Franky G., who bobs and weaves as he talks. ``I'm meeting the right people and making the right decisions . . . so I can carry this on full-time.''

The 37-year-old actor also can be seen in a feature he made before he became the hunk du jour. It's a super-low-budget crowd-pleaser called ``Manito.'' He plays Junior Moreno, the older of two brothers from Spanish Harlem; he's the trouble-prone one who has determined that kid brother Manny (Leo Minaya) won't fall under their estranged father's influence. It's a familiar scenario but is served up with a gusto and honesty that suggests early Scorsese.

Directed by another New Yorker, Eric Eason, it's also a rare urban drama about family and fidelity, rather than shootouts and car chases.

``I grew up in neighborhoods where there were drug dealers and gangbangers,'' says Franky G., who still lives in Queens with his mother, who immigrated there from Puerto Rico. ``But what I enjoyed about `Manito' so much is it's not about that. It's about family values. Junior is trying to make a better life for him and his brother . . . get him away from the drugs and the neighborhood in general.

``I don't like it when Hollywood gives us a shot in the back, rather than showing a more positive view of Latins. There's a lot of good in the Latin community: doctors, lawyers, teachers. But people haven't seen that side of it.''

Still, Franky G. is a realist and knows that his muscular frame and street savvy will, for the time being, consign him to crime thrillers. But so what. Some of his idols, including Morgan Freeman and Benicio del Toro, have gone this route. The good news: So far, Franky G.'s characters have been more good than bad.

``Yes, I've been approached to play thieves and drug dealers,'' he acknowledges, nodding. ``And I will take advantage of these parts because I'm on the verge. They're steppingstones to get my feet wet. But I'm not intrigued by them. I'm intrigued by a role like Junior Romano, an ex-con who's trying to change his lifestyle and take care of his brother.''

Franky G. was between careers when he found an ad for ``Manito'' (then called ``Cruel World'') in Backstage magazine. He sent in a head shot and three weeks later was asked to read for Eason and investors attempting to raise a rock-bottom $24,000 for three weeks of location shooting. ``Manito'' was shot on digital video, then, once selected for the Sundance Film Festival, transferred to film.

Eason, who comes from a filmmaking family (his uncle wrote ``D.O.A.'' and ``Pillow Talk''; his cousin edited ``The Bourne Identity''), recalls seeing about 50 actors for the Junior role, but he was struck by Franky G.'s rough-hewn charm.

``I felt like Kurosawa did when he discovered Toshiro Mifune,'' says the 37-year-old director. ``He had this raw, intuitive quality, this bull-in-a-china-shop fearlessness. He's not just another pretty face. He's a tough guy, yeah, but he also has the ability to feel. Women as well as men like him.''

Franky G. couldn't have been more grateful for the opportunity. Some nights he would go straight from his security job to the uptown set, without sleeping. He told Eason, ``No matter how tired I am, let's make this happen. I'm there for you.''

The dedication paid off. ``Manito,'' which played at more than 50 festivals, was Franky G.'s calling card. It showed he could handle a juicy role in a drama influenced as much by Shakespeare as the Italian neo-realists. Soon, Woody Allen and Robin Williams' agent wanted to sign him. The role of Wrench in ``The Italian Job'' was added at the last minute to get Franky G. his first exposure in a commercial picture.

Now producers and critics are comparing him to Vin Diesel.

``Listen, I'll tell you straight,'' he says when he hears this. ``It's nice to be compared to Vin. He bounced in some New York clubs and everything like that. But we're two different characters. He likes the press. I'm a low-key type of guy who doesn't like B.S. I want to concentrate on my craft, stay in shape . . . do some calisthenics, run, hit the bag. I don't want to go crazy.''

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